Monday, 15 February 2016

Five Ways to Make More People Buy Photobooks: Some of them might work?

There is the idea that the photobook market is small and that it should grow, that the current market is just the tip of the pyramid, and that beneath that tip, where books sell in their hundreds, their is this vast body of untapped potential where photobooks will gain a mass audiencee of the tens of thousands.

We at Photobook Bristol don't really share that view. That's why we have such a small festival with only 200 people or so attending.

Buy Tickets for Photobook Bristol 2016 here.

But we do understand the sentiment. It would be great if tens of thousands of people bought great photobooks like Chris Killip's In Flagrante Two for example. In the past people used to buy photobooks in their tens of thousand - why can't it happen again?

Maybe it can. There are various ways of expanding the market.

1. Deepen the reach of photobooks, so everybody can buy them, and wants to buy them, so they appear on the shelves of supermarkets, not just at bijou photobook stores.

2.  Open up the definition of photobooks. There are plenty of books with photographs in them that sell in the tens of thousands. Maybe we shouldn't be so picky.

3. Make more interesting books. There are plenty of books with pictures that sell in the millions. There are probably about 40-50 in my home, children's books, manga, graphic novels, all of which were bought to read.

4, Make cheaper books

5. Expand the geographic reach of photobooks. Go to places where there is not a culture of photobooks.

Of these four options, we remain unconvinced by the Option 1. In Flagrante Two by Chris Killip is a brilliant, brilliant photobook, probably the best photobook that will be published this year, but we see no reason whatsoever why anybody who is not interested in both photography and photobooks would be expected to spend 65 euros on it. Why would you? It's great, but it's a bit grim. There are funner ways to spend your money.

Buy the Errata Editions Books on Books version of In Flagrante here.

Option 2 is a good one. Here at Photobook Bristol we'd love to have Kim Kardashian, Sebastiao Salgado or Ransom Riggs talk. They all sell large numbers of books of differing kinds which, though they have pictures in, are not necessarily counted as photobooks - often for reasons that are both arbitrary, selective and self-serving (in the sense that there are many people out there who really enjoy being a medium-sized fish in a tiny pond, as opposed to a tiny fish in a larger pond).

Option 3 is a great one, but very difficult. Photographers verge towards opaqueness in their dealings with narrative. That's why books like Love on the Left Bank still stand out to this day - because it does have a real narrative. It's a visual story backed up by a pretty sharp complementary text. Most photobooks tend to verge on irrelevance, and are disconnected to the world they are part of. Sometimes that is a good thing, it can be poetic and beautiful, and quiet and contemplative. There's a place for that, but it's a small place. Far, far too many books are wilfully disconnected and deliberately obtuse. And even when they do connect to what is happening in the world, it is often with an excessively earnest voice that runs counter to the immediacy of the visual medium.


The fourth option of making books cheap is all well and good and we love books like the Cafe Royal series and MC Hotel Tokyo (the smartest real budget book of recent years), but we remain sceptical that they are capable of getting a much larger audience. But if more photographers choose to make cheaper books that go beyond the traditional publishing model - we're all in favour of that; small books, zines, newspapers. It's not good for the booksellers among us, but so it goes.

And that leaves Option 5. Expand the geographic reach of photobooks. That's what Dieter Neubert is doing by moving the Kassel Festival to Beijing this year. As Pierre Bessard said, 'it will be not 2500 visitors like in Kassel but 35.000...'

That's a big jump and something that might in the long term translate into a larger market. Surpisingly, Neubert's initiative met with some hostility, some of it perhaps not grasping the point that Kassel needed to do something different this year.

He also got accused of using PR. But maybe that's a good thing. We all need a little PR sometimes, a bit of smart thinking and hype that actually does communicate to people.

There are problems with moving to Beijing though. It's something that publishers like Aperture have experienced when the Self Publish Be Happy DIY Manifesto was censored by the printers in China. The printers effectively had the final say on what went into the book, and more particularly, what didn't (the more erotic pictures got cut).

Making books that are written for the Chinese market is one thing, but having your terms dictated to by a printer in Shenzhen is another. Really? That is definitely a price that is not worth paying.

So there are dangers in going to where the market is, to saving money by offshoring your printing costs, by taking money from sponsors who, whatever they might say, always have an agenda that has some kind of an affect on those who take their money. Some of the usual legal, banking, and corporate suspects are mentioned by Lewis Bush here, and there's a few more geographic photography brokers that could be added to the list. Wherever money is thrown at photography, there is a little whiff of soft power.

Which is the real danger of moving to Beijing. But then if you want to grow the audience, why not? Perhaps you have to make compromises to stay in business? The problem is how to combine that pragmatism with a refusal to self-censor and to keep on bringing truth to power. It's a tricky equation and one that photography, in all its forms, has never managed to negotiate successfully.

Buy Tickets for Photobook Bristol 2016 here.


  1. someone maybe should raise the question why going to print in China in the first place?! .. poor sign of quality choice..

  2. How many photobooks actually have a narrative, factual or fictional? Cristina De Middel has no trouble selling her books because they are creative, interesting and have a narrative. For a book to be printed in large volumes it usually has to be self funded. Publishers don't usually take the risk themselves. A photobooks appeal is no different to any other art work and dependent upon the collectors interest. There are so many variables one can not generalise. Trying to market to mass appeal would in the long term require shackle the creativity of what I see as a thriving market for discerning collectors. There is no fast buck to be made these are not novels appealing to a mass market.